Controversial Obama Center garage moved: To be underground in Jackson Park

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Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017 in Chicago. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON —In a significant victory for neighborhood and park advocacy groups, the Obama Foundation announcedon Mondaythat a controversial proposed above-ground garage on the Midway Plaisance will be located under the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

The foundation move to bury the garage in the complex comes as opposition to aspects of the development on historic park land is getting more organized – and as crucial city and federal approvals are needed.

Moving the garageunderground – the entry ramp will be on Stony Island near61st– takes a festering issue off the table as others remain. The proposed closing of Cornell Drive as it winds through the park has triggered an enormous community outcry.

The next stop: The foundation has to submit the development to City Hall’s Chicago Plan Commission.

That’s coming as a federal review to discover “adverse effects” of the project is ongoing and may well prove tougher than expected because the federal players are not controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff.

The Midway connects Washington and Jackson parks with the South Side system designed by the famed landscape architects Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. They are listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places.

A foundation spokesman said in a statement, “From the beginning of the planning process, President Obama and the Foundation have consistently made clear that the community is our partner in the development, design, and construction of the Obama Presidential Center.

“After numerous meetings with the community and other valued stakeholders over the past months, the Foundation understands that many of those voices feel strongly that the parking for the OPC should be located within the OPC campus in Jackson Park. The Foundation has heard those voices.”

One group, “Save The Midway,” said in a statement it is“extremely pleased to learn that the historic, open, public parkland of the Midway Plaisance has been withdrawn from consideration as a possible site for a parking garage for the Obama Presidential Center — nor will it be transferred by the city to the private Obama Foundation.

“We hold this to be a victory for preservationists who fought to respect this Olmsted park as a national treasure on the National Register of Historic Places; for public parks and open land advocates; for environmentalists; for community groups and organizations; and for the local community. “

Margaret Schmid, the co-founder of the watchdog Jackson Park Watch, told the Sun-Times, “We are delighted that the ObamaFoundation is listening to the voices of the community.”

THE BACKGROUND: The foundation proposed a 450-car garage on the eastern tip of the Midway – public land –in August.

But to folks who thought the foundation already had taken enough existing public parkland – some 20 acres in Jackson Park for the presidential center – enough was enough.

The foundation said the above-ground garage would help generate foot traffic to spark nearby economic development. But the foundation never came up with a business plan to show what they had in mind. And a proposed heavily landscaped park-like roof made no difference.

The Midway garage was announced in August with a supposed selling point that the roof would be landscaped to double as a public park. In November, the architects said there was the potential of relocating the garage.

The foundation decision also comes near the start of what may well be a tougher-than-expected federal review of changes in Jackson Park, triggered because Jackson Park and the Midway have been listed on the national register since 1972.

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